Op-Ed

Politicos love to bash the outlier USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll — but don't dismiss its data

In the 1980s movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a group of tribesmen living in the Kalahari Desert are confounded by a bottle of Coca-Cola that has been dropped from an airplane into their isolated enclave. The villagers move from curiosity to confusion to anger as they attempt to understand this strange object. Ultimately their leaders decide that it must be removed.

Since its release last summer, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times “Daybreak” tracking poll has elicited roughly the same reaction.

As a result of two innovative but controversial experiments in methodology, the Daybreak poll has consistently shown Donald Trump with greater levels of support than most other public opinion surveys. My role as an advisor to the poll (writing in the L.A. Times, no less) makes me anything but a disinterested observer, but it seems to me that critics, in their confusion and anger, have dismissed a great deal of valuable data.

Whereas most polls simply ask voters to choose between alternatives, the Daybreak poll attempts to determine the intensity of voter preferences by asking how committed a respondent is to his or her candidate (on a scale of 1 to 100).

Few voters shift their support on an absolute basis – from total and complete certainty for one candidate to equally unequivocal certainty for the other. Most change their minds much more incrementally, suggesting that it’s reasonable to augment traditional all-or-nothing surveys by gauging commitment over time. The polling inaccuracies we’ve seen in so many recent elections — both in this country and internationally — substantiate the need for alternative methodologies.

In measuring voter intensity, the Daybreak poll’s results do not contradict the consensus that Hillary Clinton has consistently attracted more supporters than Donald Trump. It simply shows that Trump’s backers are more fervent — and therefore more likely to actually vote.

So far so good. But to achieve a representative sample of Republicans and Democrats, the Daybreak poll creators used a potentially unreliable proxy, asking possible respondents whether they had voted for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012. Since voters often don’t like to admit that they picked the losing candidate, it’s likely that Romney backers were oversampled. This almost certainly exaggerated Trump’s level of support. But even if the Daybreak poll’s weighting assumptions turn out to be erroneous, that should not detract from the more important attempt to measure subtle and gradual shifts in voter commitment.

Critics, however, have mostly ignored the rich data from the 1 to 100 scale, instead reacting to Daybreak’s polling results with  hostility and derision. “Absurd,” “reckless,” and “useless” are only a few of the epithets that have been thrown at it. By contrast, when other polls have shown Clinton with an equally atypical double-digit lead, most of those who have vehemently criticized the Daybreak poll responded with an ambiguous mumble at best.

Is the vitriol being directed at the Daybreak poll a stand-in for the type of sentiments that critics would prefer to direct at Trump himself?

Given that Trump’s demographic base of support is comprised of voters who lack a college education, it’s unlikely that many political scientists and professional journalists are fans of his candidacy. While the ethics and customs of these professions tend to discourage outright advocacy for a particular candidate, there are no such restrictions on venting equally strong emotions about a public opinion poll that produces undesirable results.

We won’t know how wrong or right the Daybreak numbers were until after the polls have closed on Tuesday night. But scientific advancement comes as a result of inquiry and experimentation, both successful and otherwise. The most appropriate response to the Daybreak poll should not be to dismiss it because it reveals something unfamiliar and potentially disagreeable, but rather to study it and learn from it so the science of public opinion research can move forward.

Dan Schnur is the director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times statewide political poll and an advisor to the Dornsife/Times Daybreak poll.

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